Monday, February 05, 2007


Recent Changes Camp: an afterword

The old saying is that when all you have are lemons, make lemonade. So I'm processing a couple of unpleasant experiences at this year's Recent Changes Camp.

One was the thought I had, Saturday morning, while I cleaned the sinks before I made some coffee for the conference. Take a number of people, tell them about a conference, and despite the fact no one seems to be in control assure them it'll all work out. I was reminded of the stereotype Hippie commune that eventually failed because every person assumed someone was busy doing the work that was done -- yet no one was doing anything except sitting around and talking. (No, I didn't feel as if I was supporting the whole conference, but as I pulled gunk out of the drain in one of these sinks I wondered whether the folks who once again came through to make the conference work might be feeling some frustration -- if they didn't do the work, nothing would be done.)

The other was one of the sessions, run by a woman who had talked her way into running it because it was what she did for a living. I'm not going to name her, because my point is not to shame her; my point is that she ran the session with such a heavy hand, constantly yanking the conversation to what she wanted the group to talk about, that I finally exercised my right of two feet: I got up and left. Sometimes a group of people need to be allowed to vent for a while so they can clear their emotions and think logically; and sometimes the solution to a problem is not what everyone thinks it should be at the beginning of a conversation, but something that the conversation stumbles across. Lastly, sometimes a session at Recent Changes Camp can't solve a problem, no matter how it is moderated: all it can do is offer a beginning to a longer discussion that will reach its solution at a much later time.

So how does the Open Space process succeed? How can Open Projects survive?

I'll offer the following points, based on examination of how Linus Torvalds made the Linux operating system into a successful project, and from watching Wikipedia grow and thrive:

  1. The leadership needs to be hands-off, but not too hands-off.

    Both Linus and Jimbo, leaders of these projects, claim to be lazy managers: they would rather do anything except make decisions. This is quite wise. Unless internal conflicts threaten to shatter the project and send it into a death spiral, they are hands-off. The volunteers are allowed to find what they want to do -- and invest their enthusiasm into their choices.

    This works nicely with a volunteer project; for-profit projects might not succeed with such a light touch.

    The next two items gain strength from this one:

  2. Trust in the process: if members of the project worry about its proper functioning too much, then they will expect and create impositions that end up starving the project; and
  3. Ownership: if something needs to be done, do it. Most Hippy communes suffered an ugly death because no one took ownership of important matters (or too few did, burned out, and left), and the enterprise collapsed from lack of attention to critical matters.

    When people want to belong to a community (which is what many Open Space projects are) often all that is needed is for someone to point out a need. The people who want to join the project often can't contribute to what appears at first looks to be the critical activities, and find these needs to be what they are best suited for.

These points all lead back to the question of leadership: like any project, Open Space or Open Source proejct succeed or fail due to the leadership. Some people can manage an Open Space session well, and some need another style. (And some people, like me, make crappy leaders regardless of the style.) Linus discovered that, despite his success managing the Linux software project, he was a lousy manager at Transmedia; some people, despite their success in the corporate world, make crappy Open Space facilitators.


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